I come here to bury levels, not praise them
Before I go any further, I'd like to put forth a simple axiom -- yes, there are games that do not feature a strict character level, there are games where characters have multiple levels, there are games where levels are unlocked by time studied rather than by rats killed. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to be treating all levels as if they followed the "level X rat-worrier" format for two reasons. First, it's the far more common model in MMOs, and second, even in games that don't follow that model, the differences aren't so severe that you can't follow them, right? Right.
The fundamental problem is that levels create disconnects in power. Even in games that have some form of level-matching, being of a higher level is unambiguously a larger benefit.
For an example, let's look at City of Heroes, a game often praised (including by me) for having an easy system for scaling character levels up or down at a moment's notice. You could argue that there's almost no difference between a character at high levels scaled down to low levels or an actual low-level character... except for the fact that the higher level character has access to toys like single-origin enhancements, invention sets, and the opportunity for several more permanent accolade boosts.
Oh, sure, the overall power of the character gets scaled down to the appropriate level, but a level 50 character scaled down to 10 will still be stronger than a level 10 character. That improved access to resources permeates games, giving players with higher levels more toys and opportunities. Even if you can raise or lower levels, you're still stuck in an environment where more levels equal more powers, more enhancements, more equipment, more everything.
And that level wall is intimidating, especially when you're coming in after the main rush of players. How many people started playing World of Warcraft only to get turned off by realizing that their friends were already at the level cap and they'd be essentially alone for the first sixty (or seventy or eighty) levels? Or when they realized that they had to then level again by getting better equipment in order to do any of the fun things listed on the box? How many players opted out of PvP for good in Warhammer Online when they ran into a group of players with better equipment and Renown rewards from an extra ten levels, so even the bolstering effect didn't help?
It seems like levels are nothing more than a limiter, a gating mechanism that's long since obviated its usefulness. But that's just half the story.
On second thought, let's offer a little praise
Guild Wars handles levels as if they were something distasteful. You get twenty of them, they're thrown at you almost incidentally, and you'll hit maximum level almost by mistake before you're halfway done with a single campaign story. No skills are limited by level in the strictest sense, meaning that players can use a full bar at any point, with later unlocks only expanding options. In every way, the game tries to level the playing field very early on by making the few levels you need to achieve almost effortless -- and if you just want to PvP, you can jump in at max level without any restrictions.
Needless to say, that approach didn't take off. For many reasons, but in no small part because the fact is that people like leveling. It's fun to feel as if you're gaining power and ability in a steady fashion, something that no doubt led to the decision that Guild Wars 2 would offer players significantly more levels to be gained over its predecessor. (The design team is still using a steady rate instead of variable leveling speeds based on level, but that's less important.)
You can see the effect even in lobby-based shooters, most of which let players "level" a particular class and gain access to new and different weapon and ability loadouts. Players who play a game for five hours are encouraged to return if they feel like those five hours worked toward an overall goal. Smash faces for hours in Warhammer Online and you become better at smashing faces the next time, giving you a sense of accomplishment.
But there's more to levels than just allowing players to feel a sense of progress -- it also grants a real sense of investment. Leveling a character and developing your own playstyle makes the character feel more tangible. You get to put your own spin on what you want, selecting different specialties for your character because they're the parts of the game you enjoy the most. Even if you only have a handful of builds available to you at endgame, the fact that you can choose one of these builds over time is an advantage of leveling.
There's also the simple fact that leveling forces you to learn at least the bare minimum about your character's abilities. Getting a slow roll of different skills and abilities, becoming more powerful as you play the game -- this is a lot easier than just throwing everything at you in the first moments of a game.
The problem with the Guild Wars model is that advancement really stops feeling like it means anything. You don't actually care about another thousand experience points, and as a result the developers have tried to add more means of advancement into the game after the fact. Of course, that just gets right back into the same problems that levels always include, forcing players to be locked behind a wall once again...
So how level is the field?
The central problem is that every attempt games make to downplay the importance of levels essentially downplays the sense of meaningful progress. Because City of Heroes has such a small (but present) split between levels, players for a long time were in no hurry to get to high level... until the endgame system made the endgame the best place to be, which meant the army of alts on your character select screen was suddenly a hindrance. At the same time, there has to be a point where meaningful advancement takes a backseat to ease of play -- a player coming in new to Final Fantasy XI without friends in the game is going to look at the climb necessary for leveling (which frequently involves a long climb to level 30, followed by a quest to unlock the class you want to level, followed by leveling that class, and that assumes you don't want a subjob) and just quietly step away.
There are consequences to both sides of the setup. I chose to start fresh when going back to GW, because the amount of work needed to regain a max-level character felt negligible. I was more or less forced to start a new character in Final Fantasy XI, and if not for that I would never have even considered going back to the start of the game.
There's not really a solution, but there is a balance to be struck. We need to have games that reward us for playing and advancing, but at the same time it's important to not lock out new players from the beginning. And it's a continuum -- the more players get to have useful advancement, the harder it is for a new player to get anywhere.
And we, as players, need to be aware of this. We can whine and complain about what developers have done with the game, but if we want to have a high level barrier to scale, we need to also be ready to help newer players scale it so that they can get to the fun parts. We need to support making it easier to get through the low-level portions of the game that are all but abandoned, before players coming in after the initial rush have already abandoned the game altogether. We need to recognize that every level should not feel like an important milestone, and that when we can give players good cause to push forward, it rewards everyone. There's no way to have a level playing field mixed with character advancement, and we have to level it as best we can.
So yeah, it's worth congratulating someone on dinging to level four. Even with another seventy levels to go.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!